Monday, October 12, 2009

This Is Where I Take You To The Movies

We'll get back to our Scandinavian trip in a moment, but first we interrupt our travelogue for a few words about Jonathan Tropper's novel, This Is Where I Leave You. The Silicon Valley Moms Blog Group is featuring Tropper's new work for their book club today. Discovering that the book's topic is grief and family dysfunction nearly opened a big can of dread for me. You see, the particular SVM style of discussion is for the bloggers to write about how a book speaks to our own personal experience rather than to review it.

Not being able to hide behind the critical distance afforded by the position of a reviewer NOR being able to enthusiastically gush about a book I really loved is tough enough; now I had to go to the hard and thorny place, too?

Tropper's comic novel takes place during the seven days when the four adult children and mother of the Foxman family sit shiva (think a week-long Jewish wake where the family is expected to live together for the duration) for the father. The narrator son, Judd, has recently discovered his wife's affair with his boss and gets the news that she is pregnant on the heels of hearing of his father's death. Mayhem ensues as the family members fight among themselves and with their spouses and lovers, as ancient resentments are brought back into the light and a family "brand of irony and evasion" gets in the way of healthy grief.

Let's do a little checklist now, shall we? Let's see how the themes of this book can be related to my own familial "personal experience." Um, unresolved grief issues? Check. Adult siblings with communication "issues"? Oh, big check. Cute kids running around for sweet comic relief? Thank goodness, check. Clever and chatty characters who work their way through rivalries with fisticuffs, humor and big dramatic gestures? Uh, no, not really.

So as I read and laughed my way through Tropper's novel, I actually found myself relieved not to be reminded as much as I expected of my own dear troubled family. Rather I found myself thinking of some other families - people you may know as well. The Fockers, for instance.

Perhaps it was the cinematographic spectacle of scenes like the dinner when a grandchild proudly displays and then tosses the results of his potty training. Perhaps it was the complicated and smart quartet of siblings who bait and riff off each other in hilarious dialogue, throwing off lines like "That was great. Can you tell me another story about your period?" and "Let's face it, you're a little scary. You're actually scaring me right now. Your face looks very red. Are you even breathing? Is he breathing?" Perhaps it was Judd's recounting of the plot of a chick-flick he sees on a date - a perfect skewering of the current trite trend in Hollywood romantic comedies. Or probably it was the combination of all these, but something in Tropper's book kept bringing me back to memories of movies I've seen about dysfunctional families.

I was reminded (but not in a reductive way) of the messy families in movies I have loved, like Meet the Parents and the friggin' brilliant and underrated Flirting With Disaster (if you have not seen this movie, please, please, go out and rent/Netflick/Tivo it RIGHT NOW, whatever you need to do - you will laugh all the way through and marvel at the comic brilliance of Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda and Richard Jenkins who goes on an LSD trip that has to be seen to be believed. Sorry, let's get back...)

And thinking about great movies about dysfunctional families then started me reflecting on family movies I wanted to like but hated: Dan in Real Life nearly nauseated me with its airless and unreal family reunion, the whole pretty family enjoying games together and putting on a (gulp) talent show. Away We Go took the usually adorable John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph and made them smug and judgmental as a couple facing first-time parenthood.

But I'm not evaluating TIWILY's suitability as a screenplay here. Instead, I'm thinking about how art helps us get through imperfect life and get beyond overwhelming emotional pain. There's some awful stuff that the characters in this book are facing: ruined hopes, infidelity, betrayal, infertility, loneliness. But our reading experience is a happy one - we are buffered by the pleasures of the plot, the cleverness of the dialogue, the amen truths of a wise narrator.

"People need someone to blame. I had failed her in some fundamental way, and she simply couldn't bring herself to forgive me....So now we've each done something unforgivable and the universe is once again in perfect balance."

It makes perfect, crazy sense.

For most of my life, books and movies have been the way I've been able to face pain that was too extraordinary to touch in real life. Movies were my emotional education: People cried on the screen, families embraced, couples had arguments that cleared the air. The experience of watching Ordinary People was like watching a documentary about real lives, not an abstract and fictional entertainment. At home, silence, closed doors and small talk were the way to push away the mess of emotion.

When I was thinking about this post, I asked my husband to brainstorm dysfunctional family movies with me.

"Ordinary People," he said.

"Oh, that's a good one. Of course. But I'm trying to think of comedies."

"They're all comedies."

Oh my wise husband. It's so true. You have to laugh at the horrors families inflict on themselves; it's the only way we can go on.


c2cmom said...

It's funny that you mention all of these family/relationship movies because as I read TIWILY, I could see it on the big screen! Nice post on the book.

Julie said...

I, too, have "unresolved grief issues." Moreso, I have unresolved death issues. I was terrified of reading this book. Reading it didn't help my issues. But it sure was fun.

Jessica R. said...

What a great post. That's the beauty of dysfunctional family drama. If you don't laugh about it, you're going to cry about it... and it's always easier to stop laughing than it is to stop crying.

Other great dysfunctional family movie: Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter. Best line ever: "You're my sister, I have to love you, I don't have to like you."

Anonymous said...

I think we laugh at dysfunctional families because we can relate to them, in some small way. I guess that makes us all dysfunctional to some extent?